Review: Apple iPhone 3G (8GB/16GB)
Pros: A faster and more capable version of last year’s breakthrough mobile phone, preserving the world’s best cell phone operating system, a strong combination of voice and data communication features, and iPod-class audio, video, and photo functionality, while adding impressive third-party software expandability and features for business users. Offers enhanced compatibility with international telephone networks, including high-speed towers, as well as keyboard and language support for users in most of the world’s countries. Now includes GPS for limited purposes, and superior sound quality, particularly through its redesigned headphone port.
Cons: Overall cost of ownership is higher than prior model, despite regressing from last year’s stunning design, screen quality, and pack-ins. Battery life for key phone and data features is significantly worse than before, such that users will likely require inconvenient mid-day recharging. Service contracts require additional payment for 3G data services, despite inconsistent or unavailable regional coverage and performance; callers reported certain in-call sound inconsistencies. New model further decreases compatibility with past iPod accessories, including popular ones, while both camera and screen now have noticeable color tints. Defects and battery replacement will likely require Apple Store or other warranty attention during period of use; purchasing and activation can range from simple to confusing or nightmarish depending on your local service provider.
Executive Summary: Depending on where you are and what you’re doing, you may sound better or worse when making calls with iPhone 3G than on the original iPhone. There is no simple reductionist statement that properly sums up the differences, which appear to vary based on both usage and your network connection.
Having spent a full year using original iPhones in a number of different cities, we can say with some certainty that Apple did a great job with the first model’s calling functionality. From its smart use of contact data and images as a unified system for handling telephone calls and emails, to its simplified two-way calling and Visual Voicemail features, there wasn’t much that needed fixing in an iPhone sequel. The only obvious changes Apple has made in the iPhone 3G are also found in the original iPhone’s version 2.0 software: contact searching via an on-screen keyboard, which is useful for those with huge lists of friends, family, or business associates, and the ability to send and receive updated contacts that have been synchronized from an Exchange server or MobileMe account. Both are available at an additional charge, and discussed in the next section of this review.
But there are also some non-obvious changes, one of which is particularly nice: when you’re using the 3G network, you can make a call at the same time as you’re using 3G data services, a form of multitasking that the original iPhone can only pull off when connected to a Wi-Fi network. We tested this feature without any issues; it works just as expected, and just like the original iPhone on Wi-Fi, except here you’ll experience slower data speeds, but also gain the ability to operate in new situations—you can talk with friends as you’re using Maps to find their houses, use AIM for instant messaging while you’re also on the phone, or send someone a picture from the road while you’re describing what you’re seeing.
Other changes relate to the iPhone 3G’s telephone sound quality. We tested for audio differences using an original iPhone and the iPhone 3G that were held at identical distances, and used to simultaneously make phone calls to the same call waiting-equipped telephone number. On the other end of these calls were discerning callers who switched immediately back and forth from one line to the other, telling us how we sounded on each, while we listened to how the callers sounded through our sides. We tested the iPhones this way in handset, speakerphone, and Bluetooth modes. Our callers said that the overall sound signatures of the two phones were the same; neither one possessed heavier bass, treble, or midrange emphasis.
Before listing our test results, it is worth noting that Apple has added metal mesh to the original iPhone’s ear speaker, bottom speaker and microphone. While the mesh doesn’t change audio performance, it can limit the amount of dirt and lint that gets inside these seldom-covered parts. After testing the iPhone 3G against our original iPhones, we are relatively convinced that those who have heard “major” differences between the old and new models are actually comparing their dirty old microphones and speakers to the clean new ones. That said, the iPhone 3G’s bottom speaker is a little more powerful than the original iPhone’s, which makes music or the audio portion of videos a little easier to hear over ambient noise. Audio sounds slightly more full-bodied coming from the iPhone 3G’s bottom speaker than on the iPhone’s, as well.
Contrary to comments made by Apple’s handpicked reviewers, we did not find the difference between old and new iPhone speaker levels in calling mode to be profound. Beyond the issue of dirty or damaged speakers, it is possible that Apple changed the original iPhone’s speaker at some point during production, diminishing its performance, as we have read scattered reports from readers that their iPhone speakerphone levels were too low, and we saw no improvement when Apple released a firmware update claiming to improve speaker performance. A production change might explain this difference.
In handset mode: With the iPhone being used as a handset, without earphones, speakerphone, or Bluetooth engaged, our callers described us as sounding virtually identical between the two phones. On both sides, at similar volume levels, the iPhone 3G calls appeared to have a slight, unimportant edge on clarity; the difference was in no way dramatic. Notably, we have kept our original iPhone in relatively good shape since it first went into service, so neither the ear speaker nor the microphone perform differently now than they did when we started using it.
In speakerphone mode: Callers sounded somewhat louder to us at the iPhone 3G’s maximum speaker volume than on the iPhone, but we didn’t always sound as good to them. Our first caller told us that we sounded noticeably better on the iPhone than on the iPhone 3G, and on multiple attempted calls, our second caller noted that he heard volume warbling in the iPhone 3G—the sound of us fading in and out between words. We could not reproduce this issue in our own testing, and contacted our first caller to see if he heard a warbling noise; he did not. We tried again with third and fourth callers, who reported mixed results; some felt that the iPhone and iPhone 3G sounded equivalent, while others did not.
In Bluetooth mode: We paired the exact same Bluetooth headset, BlueAnt’s multi-point, Bluetooth 2.0-capable Z9i, simultaneously with both the iPhone and iPhone 3G. This headset has the ability to switch between multiple Bluetooth devices on the fly, so we used it to compare wireless sound quality between both phones on the same phone calls. Our callers told us that, unlike the iPhone in handset and speakerphone modes, the iPhone 3G sounded “noticeably” better than the original iPhone in Bluetooth mode, with superior clarity. Based on another early reviewer comment that the iPhone 3G’s Bluetooth exhibited an unusual in-car echoing effect not present in the original iPhone, we did a number of further tests with the Z9i and Bluetrek’s SurfaceSound Compact, and neither we nor our callers ever heard an echo. We are guessing that this may have been caused by an unfamiliar or problematic accessory, rather than a fault in the iPhone 3G itself.
As a final note on iPhone 3G’s calling performance, we were pleased to find that the device did not drop calls when driving from an area with 3G service into an area without it; calls continued uninterrupted with the same level of apparent quality. When we moved back into an area with 3G network coverage, iPhone 3G did not find the 3G network until the call ended.